Program Notes for July 19th, 2009

66Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Detail of the unfinished portrait by Joseph Lange.

Overture to Don Giovanni, K. 527 (1787)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)

Mozart was a composer like no other. A child prodigy who played the harpsichord by the age of four, who was composing at five, and who started touring the musical capitals of Europe at six, he also learned to play the violin along the way. He composed his first symphony before the age of ten and then began writing dramatic works, including operas in both the German and the Italian styles. Eventually Mozart accomplished the most difficult feat of all for a child prodigy, the maturing of one’s art. He became a master of dramatic stage characterization and found ways to create fully dimensional musical protagonists.

Flash forward to the age of 31: In 1787 Pasquale Bondini was looking for a theatrical hit to pack his theater in Prague. He turned to Mozart, whose ears were still ringing from the recent phenomenal success of The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart turned to his Figaro librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, who put together a kaleidoscopic plot. At the core of the story is the legendary Don Juan (Don Giovanni), the libertine who makes a cumulatively fatal series of mistakes. He attempts one too many seductions, kills the young woman’s father in a duel and mocks the statue of the dead man by inviting it to dinner. When the statue accepts and appears at Don Giovanni’s lodgings, it demands repentance. True to the title of the opera, Il dissoluto punito (“The Libertine Punished”), the flames of Hell swallow up Don Giovanni.

In earlier treatments, such as the 17th-century spoken drama by Tirso de Molina, the story is a hard-core cautionary tale. Da Ponte, however, called his opera libretto a dramma giocoso, indicating the significant presence of comic elements. Don Giovanni’s sidekick, Leporello, is a stock comic character, the clever, cowed servant. He grouses about his duties, takes the fall for his master in a crisis and tries to snatch food from the banquet table, but he also takes some pride in enumerating his master’s conquests.

Although there was precedent for such a mixed treatment of the story (and da Ponte did some borrowing), the librettist enriched the comic possibilities considerably. Indeed, while the Don’s fate might be told with as few as three scenes from the libretto, one would miss out on important aspects of his character if he were not seen to interact with comic figures. It fell to Mozart to delineate the protagonists individually through his musical characterizations. The eight main characters are a varied lot: five members of the nobility, a servant and two peasants. The overture begins with music directly related to this strand of the plot, in Mozart’s favorite demonic key of D minor. But there is another side to Don Giovanni, and the librettist did use the label dramma giocoso (“humorous drama”) and made room for lighter characters. And there is a moral, proclaimed like a banner across the stage at the very end. The giocoso side of the plot is prefigured in the fast part of the overture in vigorous D major music. Thus the elements of da Ponte’s operatic cocktail are mixed. In Mozart’s overture, at least, the lighter ingredient remains on top.

Federico Moreno Torroba

Federico Moreno Torroba

Concierto ibérico for four guitars and orchestra (1976)

Federico Moreno Torroba
(b Madrid, 1891; d Madrid, 1982)
Federico Moreno Torroba made an indelible mark in two genres of Spanish music¬–guitar music and the zarzuela (a Spanish dramatic form in which the storytelling proceeds through singing, dancing and spoken dialogue). In both genres he was particularly admired for his use of national and regional musical forms, as well as for his music’s verve and its lyrical qualities. The son of an organist who taught at the Madrid Conservatory, he first studied with his father, José Moreno Ballesteros, and then at the conservatory with Conrado del Campo and Felipe Pedrell. In 1918 he met the young guitar virtuoso Andres Segovia, and their professional association and personal friendship led Moreno Torroba to compose for the instrument. Segovia later wrote an autobiography of his early career, and he commented on his friendship with Moreno Torroba. Segovia noted how unusual it was for a composer who was not himself a guitarist to start composing for the instrument. He even called it a “first.”

Moreno Torroba composed his Concierto ibérico in 1976 and dedicated it to Los Romeros, who gave the first performance the next year, in Vancouver, BC. Los Romeros also made the first recording of the work, with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Cast in a three-movement concerto form, the work is a dialect version of the universal language of the concerto. The first movement, in traditional sonata form, features bolero rhythms. The slow movement is highly expressive, while the final movement is kaleidoscopic, featuring both lyricism and brilliance. The very elements that made Moreno Torroba the master of the zarzuela inform the Concierto ibérico.

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Ludwig van Beethoven painted by
Karl Joseph Stieler in 1820

Symphony #7 in A Major, Op. 92 (1813)

Ludwig van Beethoven
(b. Bonn, 1770; d. Vienna, 1827)
Beethoven’s symphonies, towering monuments that cast a large shadow, have raised many questions for later composers. The question of how (or even whether) to write a symphony after Beethoven received various answers from those caught in the shadow. For years Brahms refused to publish a symphony. Mendelssohn and Liszt, following Beethoven’s lead, added choral movements to certain symphonies. Wagner, not generally regarded as a symphonist (although he did dabble with the form before the age of twenty) modeled his operatic Leitmotif technique on the development sections of Beethoven’s symphonies.

There is also the question of program music – music composed to evoke a place, to suggest an object or even to explore a philosophical idea. Later composers argued vehemently for or against the programmatic concept; composers as different as Brahms (no program) and Liszt (program) could cite precedents in Beethoven. Among the master’s symphonies #3 (Eroica), #6 (Pastoral), #9 (Choral) and the famous #5 were often cited as programmatic. In the Symphony #7, though, Beethoven left no direct hints of a program by way of subtitle, nickname, thematic content or reported conversation. However, no less a Beethoven enthusiast than Wagner considered it to be the “apotheosis of the dance,” and he set about to prove it by choreographing and dancing it himself. All of musical Vienna, including the composers Salieri, Spohr, Moscheles and Hummel felt compelled to attend the first performance of the symphony, in December 1813.

In the first movement an imposing slow introduction announces the work’s monumental scale and eventually leads to one of the Beethoven’s most fascinating compositional experiments. Here, at the beginning of the fast portion of the movement, the composer refuses to let the evolutionary stages of his main tune languish unheard, consigned to some musical sketchbook. Instead he asks the orchestra to create the new theme from scratch, starting with just one note and then gradually adding enough notes to produce a lilting, dactylic tune. When the theme later appears in a full orchestration the effect is thrilling. Later, the same thematic material becomes hushed and mysterious, showing this new aspect of its personality at the beginning of the magnificent coda.

The second movement provides a fascinating study in additive orchestration, as each entering instrument brings some fresh thematic contribution to the existing music. In the Scherzo the usual form of Scherzo-Trio-Scherzo (ABA) is expanded to become ABABA, another measure of the monumentality of the work. The ebullient finale, like the first movement, ends with powerful coda, as the music grows from whisper-level to a climax of shattering intensity. One can understand Wagner’s compulsion to dance.

Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on four continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and of WWU’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.